Historians in the Job Market
Historians in the Job Market
It probably sounds familiar to you as an aspiring historian: jokes about job opportunities and future prospects. The reality is more nuanced and it is by no means certain that you will end up in front of the class. On the contrary. On this page you can find inspiration based on the experiences of former history students. They tell you about their careers and the road to them. These stories can give you a better idea of what career options are out there and maybe even inspire you for the path you want to take yourself.
Meagan van de Mortel
Graduated in: History with a master in education
Profession: Teacher in high school
In 2007 I came to Groningen to study history. I had finished my high school in Germany and my original plan was to stay in Germany and study anthropology. I was rejected, and had to quickly come up with a new plan. I always liked history in high school and it seemed like a very in-depth and educational study. At that time I had no idea what I would eventually want to do with it, but I expected to find out during my studies. "I could always become a teacher," I sometimes said to myself at the time. In addition to the compulsory courses, I enjoyed choosing lectures with totally different themes in which cultures especially appealed to me. I chose a minor in arctic studies and took classes in Mexico, Africa and Japan. I wanted to learn as much as possible about different subjects because I thought it was important to develop as a person who looks beyond her own Western world.
After my bachelor's I found it difficult to choose a master's. I wanted to stay in Groningen because I could not find the right subject. I also wanted to stay in Groningen because I had built my life there and I was very active in the study association. Because I always saw myself as a teacher (after high school I once visited an open day for the PABO), I decided to do the educational master. The first internship was very exciting but soon enough I found my feet in front of the class and I started to like it more every day. By now I had realized that jobs in education were not easy to come by and it was almost impossible for history teachers to find work. After completing my master's degree in February 2013, I wrote eighty applications responding to everything that came along (regardless of location, length and size of the job). Many jobs ended up being solved internally or filled by someone with more experience. These were very demotivating months during which I strongly doubted that I had made the right decision in choosing the educational master's. I had given up hope of finding a job in education by the 2013-2014 school year and was now looking for whatever job I could find. Thanks to a desperate appeal through a status update on Facebook (including the for historians familiar photo of the man with the banner "who helps me to work, no matter what") I was tipped by an acquaintance (whom I had met during an ISHA-meeting of Ubbo Emmius). His father worked at a school in Limburg where they were diligently looking for a new history teacher. It had become summer vacation in the south and they were desperate to find a new colleague in time. On Friday I was tipped off and wrote my letter, on Monday I was invited to drop by, Tuesday at noon I had my job interview and two hours later I had a job. That is how fast things can go.
Meanwhile I work one and a half year at St. Ursula in Heythuysen and besides history I also teach geography, social studies, human and social education and German. I am a mentor of a second years class and a participant of an iPad project. Within our three-member subject group we organize many interesting projects. For example, last November we extensively reflected on the fall of the wall by inviting tunnel builders and escape helpers to the classroom. We also had World War II veterans of all nationalities in our school who were interviewed by our own students. I work in a VMBO school and, of course, I was not specifically prepared for this during my training as a first grade teacher. I still find that sometimes I am not quite sure if I am approaching something correctly but as a beginner that is allowed and quite normal. The fact that I have oriented myself very broadly during my studies gives me many advantages. As a history teacher you naturally have to cover many topics and so it is very nice if you know a lot about different subjects. During your history course you read a lot and you take exams on large chunks of text. You will learn to process a lot of text and to switch quickly between subjects. This comes in very handy during your work as a teacher. I teach five subjects in four different grades: I have to be able to switch quickly and process information.
My tip for future historians and teachers: don't underestimate the power of networks! I never thought I would find my job through Facebook! Make sure you can be found by employers on LinkedIn, create an account on Twitter, use your Facebook friends when you need something, attend career events, and most of all, do lots of things in addition to your studies. Make sure you stand out from the rest! Good luck!
Dr. E.A.M Bulder
Graduated in: History
In 1981, I began studying history. Like many, because I found it an interesting subject in high school and I had a teacher who taught it with passion. It also turned out to be something that gradually became a 'family trait'. My uncle had once gotten his teacher’s degree in History and had become a teacher and also my oldest brother studied history and now teaches VWO students. What exactly I wanted to achieve with my studies was not at all clear to me. One thing I knew for sure, however, was that I did not want to become a teacher.
During my second year I began to wonder what I wanted to do to build on my studies. Journalism seemed like a good option. I applied to the Winschoter Courant, which was well known at the time, as a regional correspondent. Although I learned a lot it became clear to me that newspaper journalism was not what I was looking for. Meanwhile my studies progressed at an average pace. And along the way I began to enjoy doing research more and more. By now it had become clear to me that economic and social history had my strong preference. What attracted me in particular was the interdisciplinary approach. I also discovered that I naturally possessed an important characteristic for doing research; namely curiosity. Investigative journalism was still an option, but there were others. In the end, I chose to do doctoral research.
Choosing' sounds as if the opportunities for that used to be there for the taking. However, nothing was further from the truth. Even then, there were only very limited opportunities within letters. However, economic and social history at that time was also part of the economics faculty. I therefore responded to an advertisement in the UK of a newly established research school of the economic faculties of the Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Free University Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam, called Tinbergen Institute. I was allowed to start on 1 January 1988. Because my first supervisor, Jo Ritsen, became Minister of Education, I was forced to continue my research in Cambridge. But that was no punishment
For three years, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure was a fantastic place to learn the real craft of researcher. There I was able to make use of the Group's more than excellent (off-print) library, became part of a research group of repute which brought me into contact with researchers I had previously known only from publications. There I learned what a scientific discussion is; both on paper and during seminars and referee evenings. Cambridge turned out to be a place where scientific discussion not only goes on 24 hours a day, but where it also has an unprecedented multidisciplinary character because of the lecture system. And that was precisely what had always appealed to me so much about economic and social history. Finally, I learned to speak English fluently there and eventually wrote my dissertation in that language as well. All in all, this strengthened my conviction that an international experience should be part of every academic career.
All in all, it had become crystal clear to me that doing research was my passion. As mentioned, this can be done in various places: as a researcher at a scientific institute, as an investigative journalist, in the government or as an independent entrepreneur. In the end my choice fell on the latter option. By now I knew how research had to be done, but I was not (yet) an entrepreneur. Meanwhile I am 22 years further. In addition to being an independent entrepreneur with a number of staff, I have also been teaching at the RUG for a number of years. Although I once knew for sure that I did not want to become a lecturer, I really enjoy it. It is precisely the combination of my experiences inside and outside the academic world that I can, in my opinion, put to good use.
There was a period when I only had historians as collaborators. The advantage of studying history is that you learn to search, to find what you are looking for and to substantiate opinions and visions in a broad way. In addition, you learn to write, not only in terms of style and spelling, but certainly also how to construct a report (because you often write these in practice). I currently have a more diverse workforce because it better suits the nature of my business at the moment. Nevertheless, in my view, the aforementioned skills remain the most important 'assets' of history students.
Graduated in: History
Profession: Teacher in higher education
I started studying history for a simple reason: I liked history. In the late 1990s, economic conditions were still such that it seemed safe to be guided by that sort of thing. During my history studies, I soon found out that political history was my main preference. In fact, I found politics in general interesting. I therefore started to develop activities in this direction quite quickly alongside my studies: first by being active in the Groninger Studentenbond (GSb), and later by becoming active in the local SP. In the process I gained useful skills such as organizing, writing press releases and strategic thinking. I would especially like to recommend this to every history student: don't limit yourself to your studies, but also look for activities in addition that you get excited about and that could possibly be useful for a later career.
When I had to start my graduation, I felt a bit lost: I had a nice graduation topic but no idea what to do with my life afterwards, and no immediate job perspective. More or less as an experiment, I decided to apply for a place on the SP electoral list in the 2004 European elections. Somewhat to my own surprise I ended up in 5th place: not eligible, but high enough to participate in an entire election campaign (debates, etc.). Afterwards I had gained so much experience that I was asked to go to Brussels to work as a group assistant. Brussels, and certainly the European Parliament, is a wonderful place to work that I would certainly recommend to anyone. However, at that time I had not yet graduated and I strongly advise against the combination of a busy job and graduation. It delayed graduation quite a bit, although it worked out in the end.
I certainly got something out of my studies in Brussels. In the European Parliament there is an enormous amount of documents, and historians in particular are trained to analyze a large amount of information and to extract the main lines and important points. Moreover, historians also learn to communicate this information clearly and accessibly in written and spoken word. A useful skill in politics.
After having worked on dossiers on European agricultural and nature policy for four years, I thought it was time for something else. I also wanted to return to the Netherlands. After some searching I ended up at the Province of Overijssel as a policy officer for the rural area. To be honest, I didn't like this job very much: I found the work as a provincial official not always socially relevant and, to be honest, also rather boring after the hectic and international life in Brussels. After three years the job at the province ended and I was unemployed for the first time in my life: not a pleasant prospect for a historian. In the meantime I did use my political experience as a member of the city council in Zwolle and -after I left the province- as a member of the provincial council. These, however, are secondary functions.
Eventually I had to look for a new job for six months. In this day and age that is perhaps not so long, but at the end I did start to get worried. The combination of history and government experience is not easy to find in times of major government cutbacks.
Fortunately, I was able to find a job as a lecturer in politics at the Media, Information and Communication department of Saxion University. That I got this job was due to a combination of my diverse political experience and having a master's degree, nowadays required for almost all teaching jobs in HBO. So go on for that master's! University bachelor's degrees are not as highly valued on the job market, whatever the education may say. In the meantime, I also teach in the public administration program, including political history. This brings me back to my own field of study. I can see myself doing this work quietly for years to come.
What I see in the history students of my generation is that most of them did well, but rarely in their original field. You see them in the media, in the civil service, in politics and in social organizations. They have often chosen to follow additional training, for example a journalism master's degree, they have moved on from a part-time job or, like me, they have made their hobby their profession. What I also notice is that maintaining your network is very important. Not a few of my friends have helped each other find work, by pointing out vacancies, by putting in a good word for someone or by tipping off clients. Today's bar mates will be policy advisers in ten years' time and directors in twenty. They will be of great help to you, so cherish them.
Jens van der Weele
Graduated in: History with a researchmaster in political debate
Profession: Communication consultancy
After three years of history in Groningen, half a year of German in Leipzig, and a two-year research master's degree in 'political debate' in Leiden, he ended up at a communications consultancy in The Hague. Jens van der Weele has enjoyed working at EMMA Communications for two years now, where he combines editing and research with communication advice. So much for the chronicles. What does his daily work actually entail? And did he benefit from his studies? Jens interviews Jens.
Jens, why did you interview yourself for this article
'To also show in form what my work is often about. As a communication consultant I think a lot about how you can best reach your target group (online). How to write a text in such a way that people 'feel like' reading it. How to write your tweet in such a way that people 'click through'. Or how to write a research report in such a way that it convinces the recipient. That often means: standing out, attracting attention, doing something slightly different from the rest.
Does your study of history still help you in your work?
Yes, certainly. A large part of my work consists of writing. Interviews, articles, blogs, columns, advice, tweets, e-mails, presentations, speeches, reports, you name it. If there's anything you learn during undergraduate history, it's writing. After all, that's much more than pasting words together: it's about thinking in advance about the form of your piece, the structure of your story, the arguments and frames you use. I'm only now noticing how good alphas actually are at that.'
You're mainly concerned with social topics from the present. Don't you ever miss the history subject?
'Honestly, no! I started studying history in 2006 because I wanted to 'understand the world better'. Well, I used to tell that to anyone who asked. As an eighteen-year-old student, I mainly wanted to gain some insight into the origins of today's liberal-democratic society. After six years of study, I had pretty much found that answer, especially in 19th century parliamentary debates, which I ploughed out during my research master's. That was a very cool thing to do, but after graduating I felt like doing something new.
What did you start doing after you graduated?
'Throughout my studies, I was - like so many history students - very little concerned with life afterward. My master's went into depth rather than breadth, so for a long time I thought I should do a PhD. But after graduation, I didn't see myself spending another four years in the archives or the library. Besides, PhD positions were not up for grabs. I decided to look further afield and applied to jobs in all sorts of directions: journalism, politics, university, government, museums, consulting. I almost ended up as a teacher in front of the classroom.'
How did you end up in communications?
Only when I found out for myself what I really wanted did I start applying for jobs. My part-time job with an educational publisher helped enormously. After graduating, I was able to continue working there full-time, so that I could gain some experience in editing in a communications department. That work suited me well; I wanted to go in that direction. I soon decided to adapt my CV and LinkedIn profile accordingly: no longer shooting with hail but with precision.
And the job at the communications agency?
I owe it mainly to my network (which I didn't know I had at the time). I used Google to search for communication agencies with a social profile, until I recognized a former student on the EMMA team page, with whom I had chatted during breaks at lectures. I decided to e-mail her and ask her how she liked her job. The agency happened to have a vacancy; her boss looked at my (newly updated) LinkedIn profile and I was invited for a cup of coffee. So in addition to a proactive attitude, you also need some luck!'
Finally, do you have a tip for the history students among us?
I would advise every student to take a broad look at their studies, for example by taking part in side jobs, committees, boards, hobbies, subsidiary subjects or minors. It is so easy to say that you want to 'continue doing' something with history after your studies, but so difficult to realize. Of course it's possible, with the right motivation and a bit of luck, but many of my fellow students are now involved in completely different things (policy, communication, management, you name it) and enjoy it. The world is bigger than you think!'
Graduated in: History and a researchmaster in modern and contemporary history (political culture)
Profession: Policy consultant Hanzehogeschool Groningen
About ten years ago, I started studying history. The plan was to do the master's in journalism after three years. Finally, in 2010, after internships in Albania and Sweden, I completed the research master's in Modern History and International Relations and a bachelor's in Philosophy of a Science. In the spring I had already started applying for jobs, without much success. And now that I look back, it's no wonder. I fired a hail of bullets at publishers, PhD positions, international think tanks, government and other traineeships, museums, NGOs and journals. If I had any affinity with them at all, I tried. This usually resulted in half-hearted attempts and unconvincing letters. Invitations for talks did not materialize.
Until the Balkenende IV cabinet fell and parliamentary elections were held. Politics and political culture had always had my interest and I realized that now there was an opportunity to work in the heart of our democracy. I was a member of D66 and the party was growing from three to ten seats. That meant they needed new staff. I managed to get my intrinsic motivation down on paper convincingly. I was invited for two interviews and to my great joy I got a job as a policy officer. When I write it down like this, it sounds simple, but I realize that I was lucky that everything coincided: there was an opportunity at the right time, I was intrinsically motivated to get started and I fit the profile and the team.
For three years I enjoyed working for the group. I prepared debates, wrote speeches, worked on legislative proposals and helped defend them in the House of Representatives and the Senate, talked to countless people, organizations, companies and campaigned several times. It was a special and fascinating period.
After three years I wanted to return to Groningen for personal reasons. There was little work here, so I decided to return more or less at random. Once again, I was lucky: I was able to work for D66 Groningen for half a week and was allowed to lead the campaign for the 2014 municipal elections. Since only the first part was paid, I also started as a freelance copywriter. Through my network, I brought in my first assignments. Through these assignments I came into contact with the Hanzehogeschool Groningen. There, just before the summer, a vacancy came up that fit my profile well. Since September 1, 2014 I work as a management consultant at the university. In this capacity, I advise the Executive Board on political-administrative developments in general and higher education in particular. I also write speeches and strategic memoranda, for example.
But how do you get there? What can you actually do as a historian that sets you apart from others? And how can you show that you also mean and add something as a person?
Many of you will also have been confronted with the comment, "Oh, history? You want to be a teacher?" No problem, if indeed you want to be a teacher. However, if you have other plans, it is sometimes difficult to explain what a historian can do. Historians have three qualities that almost any employer can appreciate: they can write; they can extract the gist from a great mass of data and present it well; and they can see the connection between developments and can place them in a larger picture.
However, these skills are not in themselves decisive. You also have to show that you have something to contribute as a person. You must therefore develop yourself outside of your study programme. Take courses in various disciplines. Do an internship, preferably abroad. Working is different from studying and it is very valuable if you can show that you have developed professionally. Join a board or committee - you will learn how to work together and hold meetings, and the latter in particular is an art in itself!
Also, remember that you don't have to do it alone. Respect your teachers. They can teach you a lot, and if you do a good job, they're often not too shy about recommending you. Besides, most of them are extremely interesting people. Keep your other contacts warm, too; more than half of the jobs are given out through the wire. You really don't have to call every week, but be genuinely interested and keep in mind: to be interesting, be interested.
Woody Allen once said, 80% of success is showing up. Work hard and show that you are good at what you do. By also doing the less pleasant jobs, you show that you are loyal and willing to roll up your sleeves. This is more important than you might think and you often get more in return. Be willing to learn and show that you take feedback seriously. Realize that when you are in a place, whether as an intern or employee, you are not there yet. That's when it starts.
It helps if you know what you want because you can work towards something more focused. But don't worry if you don't know. Some of the most interesting people I've met still don't know what they want either, even if they've been working for a long time. Besides, wanting something is no guarantee that you will get it. You will be disappointed once. Learn from it and then move on. Don't stare at that one perfect job or career. Do look for an organization that suits you, not on the basis of status or salary, but precisely when it comes to deeper values. If you are intrinsically motivated, your employer will benefit the most from you and you will also get the most out of yourself.
And finally: relax. No one thinks at the end of their life, "If only I had worked more." Seek out your family and/or friends. They can think with you and often know you better than you think or want to believe. They are also your best ambassadors. And: they are there even when there is no work.
Dr. M. Zwiers
Graduated in: History, American History and a master in Southern Studies
Profession: Lecturer contemporary history University of Groningen
In high school, I seriously considered becoming an ambulance driver. Now I'm an associate professor in the Contemporary History section. What has happened in the meantime? My original idea was to drive an ambulance in New York City. I liked the idea of driving around Times Square in a Chevy Express with the siren and flashing lights on. In the end, nothing came of it; the father of one of my best friends was a surgeon and convinced me that if you had seen one severed hand, you had seen them all - even in the United States. As a little boy I was fascinated by the US (especially the American Civil War) and I always found History an interesting subject. So when my ambulance chase had somewhat calmed down, I decided to study History in Groningen. The advantage of the RUG was that after your propaedeutic year you could take an upper-division course there, of which American Studies was one. So I was going to study History for a year and start American Studies in the second year.
It all turned out a little differently. The History course was great fun, but I also wanted to focus on the US - after all, that was my boyhood fascination. So there was only one thing to do: do both studies and see if and where the ship would run aground. It turned out that the studies could be combined very well and, moreover, American Studies offered the possibility of studying in the United States for a semester. That became the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. After studying for seven years, I completed both History and American Studies in 2005. During my studies, I served on a few more boards (of the Historians in Future Perspective Foundation and EPU, the American Studies study association), was involved in the founding and editorial board of the American Studies Herald, and helped set up List Calimero, including as the author of the first party platform and as a midnight poster poster plasterer. Calimero is now an establishment, but was born out of a "fuck the system" idea, concretized on the back of a beer mat during one of the legendary Bio Drinks in the Unitas building.
I had had a fantastic time in Chapel Hill, so I wanted to go back to the States for a longer period of time to get to know the country better and to specialize in a subject I have always had a keen interest in, the history and culture of the American South. The University of Mississippi had a two-year MA program in Southern Studies, which exactly covered the bill. I moved to Oxford, Mississippi in August 2005, a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Mississippi coast. The damage was not too bad in Oxford, but the devastation of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans showed once again that history (especially in terms of racial and economic inequality) was still alive and well in the US South. Graduate school in the United States is quite different from a Master's in the Netherlands. In Mississippi I had to read an average of three books a week for my lectures, plus prepare and write essays, reviews and presentations. I also had a job in the university archives to pay for my studies. In the U.S., I learned that hard work and efficient time planning are necessary to achieve good results.
My job in the archives had an added benefit. I got to work on the papers of James Eastland, a powerful Democratic senator from Mississippi who was best known for his anti-communism and defense of racial segregation in the South. This archive had not yet been unlocked and thus had enormous potential in terms of research. Although Eastland had already retired in 1978, no historian had yet had the opportunity to examine his papers. I decided to write my MA thesis on his 1966 and 1972 election campaigns and, after completing the thesis, submitted a research proposal on his entire career to the RUG, where a number of PhD positions became available in the spring of 2007. At that time I had seen it a bit in Oxford and moreover the financing of a PhD program was better arranged in the Netherlands. I started my PhD in September 2007 and defended my thesis in October 2012. By then I had been teaching History for more than a year; my PhD contract expired in 2011 and fortunately I was then able to start working in the Contemporary section, where I taught mostly first- and second-years during the first years, both in History and in IB/IO and Dutch Studies.
I didn't map out my career in advance - for the same money I would have been on an ambulance in NYC right now. What I do think is important is an intrinsic interest in what you are doing. That seems cliché, but it's very important, especially in a study like History. Too often I meet students who drag themselves through their studies without any enthusiasm for the subject. In that case, I think you'd be better off doing a course with better job prospects. If you are planning to do a PhD, it is useful to specialize in a specific subject early on in your studies; in my case, it was the history of the southern states. Try to do something in addition to your studies, such as a board or editorial work. This will undoubtedly delay your studies (I'm still paying off my student debt, too), but it's helpful for your personal and professional development. If you plan to study abroad after your bachelor's degree, for example, you should start in time; for graduate school in the US, set aside at least a year of preparation (searching for a suitable university, fundraising, admission tests such as the TOEFL and GRE, et cetera). With a clear academic profile, experience abroad and perhaps a few publications, you stand a reasonable chance of getting a PhD place. Then again, you should ask yourself if you want one, because the job market for PhD historians is particularly lousy right now. At the same time, perhaps you shouldn't be too put off by these kinds of doomsday scenarios. With a positive American can do mentality, you can go a long way in life.